Oklahoma was dotted with mom and pop cafes everywhere in the 40’s, 50’s until the franchises and fast foods began trending. Every generation has its trends, and in that generation it was the food industry as “cafes” that became family affairs for dining out. Such was this cafe, the Morris Cafe of Morris, Oklahoma in the southeast part of the state. In the 1940’s and 50’s in this small town, the business district was about 5 city blocks long on Main street where you could find all the viable businesses you needed. Along those blocks were: a theater, doctor’s office, bank, post office, drug store that doubled as a bus depot, barber shop, hardware/appliance store, two service stations, a bar, and two highly competitive cafes.
Arthur and Rhoda Marrs had invested every cent they had into opening their cafe, The Morris Cafe, after years struggling as share croppers. They had a vision of showcasing Rhoda’s cooking and that of her support staff, which was to become nothing short of legendary. In a time when business depended on word of mouth rather than marketing and advertising genius, drawing folks into a small farming community had to offer something extraordinary. They were only 8 miles from Okmulgee, the county seat, and yet they drew patrons from Muskogee, Jenks, Henrietta, Beggs and many surrounding towns including Tulsa itself. There was no question that Rhoda’s cooking was the draw.
Now if they were the “best” one has to ask why we titled this the “Best Worst Cafe” in Oklahoma. I can assure you it had nothing to do with with the food, or even the prices. No, you could get a dinner at lunch or suppertime for $1.65 . It would contain a generous amount of food. If it was Sunday and you ordered a chicken dinner, you got 3, count them, 3 pieces of chicken (two dark and one light), mashed potatoes with gravy, a yellow vegetable, a green vegetable, a salad, bread or rolls with butter, and a piece of pie for that $1.65. The pies, the cooks best item, some would say. Don’t even get me started on the hot beef sandwiches and mashed potatoes, or the hamburgers and fries, let alone the meatloaf, ham, and turkey with dressing meals. Did I forget to mention you had free coffee or milk included with a meal?
It also could not have been the service at the cafe which caused its “worst” classification. Mr. Marrs, Arthur saw to that part of the business personally. Standing only about 5’6″ he was a “scrappy” little man who had a no nonsense approach to work, and took the reputation of the cafe business very serious. While one would not call him a handsome man, or even good looking, he definitely had a Bogart quality about him and his voice cinched it as he had a deliberate tone that made one wonder if his teeth might be just a little loose. Completing the look with a twinkle in his eyes, as he reserved his smile for rare occasions, and his laugh for even rarer occasions. However, when they were evident, he was a charming man. One never knew for certain if he was ignoring them or did not hear them as he could make his hearing aid work to his advantage, or so it seemed.
Rhoda was a fun loving and attractive woman who had always determined herself to be a lady. Even in the years they were sharecroppers, and during the depression, Rhoda would rise before everyone and put on make-up and dress before anyone was stirring. In the years when there was no money or availability of cosmetics, she made her own. Long before the craze of “corn silk powder” and make-up, Rhoda was making her own and even her own lip coloring cosmetics. She taught herself to sew and became a master seamstress able to see any apparel and go home and copy it without even a pattern. Her sense of style and color made her stand out into her eighties. Customers always enjoyed her company along with her cooking.
*****THE MARRS FAMILY***************
Arthur, Rhoda, Marguerite Jack, Johney and Danita in Morris, Ok. at their homeplace (1940’s)
The cafe’s service by the wait staff could not have been any better . There was Bobbie, Rhoda’s best friend who worked counter, booths , and helped in the kitchen. Mrs. Sellers who could “really cook”. The three of them were the “A Team” and on weekends and after school they were assisted by Danita, Arthur and Rhoda’s late-in-life surprise who came along after their three other children were grown and gone from home. She was part of the workforce when she was still in grade school. Her only extra curricular school activity was being as a majorette and she excelled as a baton twirler. Her picture in her uniform, made by Rhoda, sat near the cash register so that every patron was sure to see it, and comment on it as well.
During the summer and many week-ends, Danita was assisted by her two “nieces”. The three of them ranged in ages of 6, 8. and 10 years old in the beginning of their “careers”. The couple’s oldest child, and daughter, Marguerite had a daughter Trula who was older than Danita by two years. Her younger daughter Joyce was younger than Danita by a year. They were raised like “sisters” and worked together as a team. The three of them were drawn into service in the cafe in their grade school years to take some of the burden off the adults. With such a brisk business spanning many hours daily, seven days a week, it was hard to keep up with. The adults welcomed the youthful energy of the three whenever they were available.
As for Trula and Joyce they were more than happy to be paid in wages of food and one pop per day when working, (Grapette for Joyce and Dr. Pepper for Trula.) Even when dish washing and drying were included they were still happy to be working for food. All three of the girls were happy for “tips” made when working the booths and counter, and once it included a whole quarter apiece from Shorty, their favorite customer. Shorty was elderly and walked his two blocks each day, twice a day, announcing his arrival in advance by the “tap, tap, tapping” of his peg leg. He got home delivery in in-climate weather and holidays when the Cafe was closed.
***********Trula, Joyce, Danita**********
So what then could have been the reason for the designation of “worst?” Not the immaculate care of the cafe and its eight counter stools and three booths, which were certainly positives. The juke-box and its nickel plays were popular, especially when Mr. Marrs would give you a “red” nickel (made by applying fingernail polish) for a free play. He would smile, even laugh at the excitement of the children when they would thank him hurriedly and run to the jukebox with its bright multi-colored lights while trying to decide which of the many choices would be ruled out to play that one special song. Mr. Marrs would chuckle knowing the red finger-nail polish on the red nickel meant when the money was emptied from the nickelodeon, it would come back to him to supply more free plays when the man who owned the juke-box made his rounds to collect the money. It was after all, in the days before the businesses could afford and own their own machines. The cafe even got counter and booth player machines, and again, the red nickels would be used in them,
In part, the cafe was the “worst” because of its best qualities as dictated by Mr. Marrs. The 1940’s and 50’s were years of segregation in Oklahoma. There were no “Negroes” as they were called then, living in Morris. The closest were in Okmulgee living in “Colored Town.”
A sign seen in most businesses of the time read:
Infrequently there would be some individuals, or some families riding on the buses, that frequented that route that were “colored.”. They might be subject to a long layover in Morris while waiting for their connection. The problem being they could not be served in the businesses where food was served and often had to wait out on the street as no “coloreds” were allowed to frequent any white businesses, and there were only white businesses in Morris. The wait might take hours and of course they would become hungry. On occasion some would stand outside the business doors of the grocery story, gas station or cafes and asked if they could just buy something to eat outside or to take with them. It could be in-climate weather and yet they would not be allowed in off the streets. It was not always a polite or friendly rebuff unless it was the Morris Cafe.
Mr. Marrs was known to be his own man. No one pushed the scrappy little man around or told him what to do. When he was asked for food, he would step outside and quietly speak with the people asking for service. They would leave and he would return inside the cafe. Momentarily he would leave the front with Bobbie taking over, and he would go into the kitchen. Unseen by anyone out front, he would go through the kitchen into the back room which had a stairway up to the family living area, and a back door. Once he opened the door, the Negroes would come into the small room which doubled as a small meeting room where the Lions club met every Wednesday at noon gathered around a long table. Mr. Marrs would see to it the special customers were given the same high level of service and food as the white patrons were getting out front. After eating they often enjoyed the warmth of that room while waiting for the bus connection to arrive.
The truth be known, in such a small town, and with the normal quota of bigots, many knew what was happening, but for fear of being on Mr. Marrs bad list and not being welcome to eat Rhoda’s cooking, few confronted him. If they did, that just meant there was more business for the other cafe, as they would not be coming to the Morris Cafe to eat again. Just as the weekly Lion’s club which met there and ate in that meeting room, the patrons played the game; see nothing, hear nothing and tell nothing. But to some of the others, “The Morris Cafe was the worst cafe in Oklahoma.”
*In the interest of full dis-closure, Mr. Marrs like many raised in the traditions of the south, “came to his feelings of equality” after experiencing the course of bigotry most people of that time and practice knew as “acceptable, normal, and even familial” teachings. It made his eventual practice of serving everyone even more remarkable.
Another designation as the “worst cafe” came because as Oklahoma was part of the Bible Belt, and people expected that businesses should close on Sundays. A blue law is a type of law designed to restrict or ban some or all Sunday shopping for religious standards, particularly the observance of a day of worship or rest. Such was the practice in Oklahoma in this time period. The church people condemned the Marrs for not closing, but in actuality, the income on Sundays was a necessary part of making their budget work and it was on the weekends they had their largest crowds from all over the county. It was also significant that a large number of folks came after church from all over, while the locals in larger numbers came the other six days not wanting to be seen breaking the Sabbath by eating out on Sunday.
It also followed that the closing of the cafe for Sundays, and indeed for any day, was a hardship on many townspeople. In those days of no nursing homes, meal services, or help for housebound people living in one room, the closing of the cafes would literally mean there were no hot meals for many. Yet, it was expected that businesses should close on the proper “holidays” as well as Sundays. On the Christmas observance Mr. Marrs closed, but on that day Rhoda would load up the car and the three girls were always excited to deliver the Christmas baskets of hot food and fruit for all the shut-ins and elderly that were in town. It didn’t matter if they were regulars at the Morris Cafe or not, if they were elderly, sick, alone or shut-in, they got deliveries. Thanksgiving was a half day open for the cafe, and then deliveries. Easter the cafe did not close.
One might wonder what the motivation for this article is at this time, and why call it a Thanksgiving story?
It is because Arthur and Rhoda Marrs were my grandparents, and the last time I saw Arthur was 52 years ago, just before Thanksgiving. They had traveled to Oklahoma State University to visit my husband and I who were expecting our first baby. What a grand time we had as we took them to the Student Union where the students of the Restaurant Studies and food preparations were serving a candlelight dinner with all the trimmings. I loved that my husband and Grandpa Arthur had such an easy rapport with one another as many found Grandpa intimidating. I chuckled when Grandma Rhoda fussed at him for “saucering” his coffee in such a “fine restaurant”, and my husband assured her his father did so as well. I also loved that this was their first visit to us and they were heading for Texas for more family visits for the Thanksgiving holidays.
That fateful trip claimed my grandfather’s life in the fog on a Texas highway. He was struck by a vehicle as he crossed the highway to find shelter for he and my grandmother as the thick fog was too much for them to continue to drive. The man I had called “Gramps” was gone. I had been the only grandchild allowed to call him that, cementing my special bond with him. When other adults told me I could not call him that as it was dis-respectful, he had beamed that Bogart smile at me, patted me on the head, and simply said, “Yes you can.” Nobody would dispute Arthur’s word.
Fast Forward to 2016, Memorial Weekend in Morris, Oklahoma. The 12th annual Marrs Family Reunion has just concluded and people have packed up and gone home to many states other than Oklahoma. New generations still pay homage to the Marrs that came before them, and there is a sense of unity and respect as people come, sometimes for the first time, and become acquainted. They will return, next year, same time, same location, same reason.
Introduced this year into the reunion was a banner honoring Marrs veterans.
Happy Thanksgiving Grandpa, and now Grandma. You were special people who made an honest living working brutal hours whether as sharecroppers or cafe owners. In your own ways you taught me right from wrong. You showed me that society should not dictate how one must live, and in fact may try to dictate the opposite; the choice is ours. Your examples of integrity, serving people with dignity and compassion as well as loving the elderly, disabled and seeing them as blessings, are things that have made my life richer and carried me my entire lifetime. Thank you. I am so thankful for you and all of your lessons.